Do all one-syllable words need to be followed by a 子 to make it colloquial? For example, 椅 becomes 椅子, 锤 becomes 锤子, 尺 becomes 尺子 and etc.

I thought about this because I came across a picture dictionary for Chinese words and I saw most of the single syllable objects have a 子. But some of it doesn't have so do I need to add the 子 when speaking? A few example that I saw without the 子 are 据 and 铲. So should I add a 子 and make it 据子 and 铲子?


5 Answers 5


Modern Chinese loves disyllabic words, that's why often you find seemingly meaningless "affixes" added to characters to sound "nicer".


  • 老 (老虎),
  • 小 (小李),
  • 初 (初一)


  • 子 (椅子),
  • 頭 (木頭)

are just a few that are commonly used. Other ways of turning monosyllabic words into disyllabic words includes:

  • Compounding: putting together 2 roots with lexical meaning in forming a new word. E.g. 菊 (Chrysanthemum) -> 菊花 (Chrysanthemum flower)
  • Reduplication: duplicating a character or multiple characters. E.g. 爸 (Dad) -> 爸爸 (Dad)

So when you speak, try to observe how others usually collocate words. However, it is totally acceptable to use monosyllabic words when surrounded by enough sounds to make sense of it. So if they are just words used on their own, others may not totally understand them without context, since there are many homonyms.

In your example, 鋸 (beware the tool "saw" has a 金 radical) and 鏟 may match up with 子 to form 鋸子, 鏟子. These are good on their own. Or by making them compounds with description: 電鋸 (electric saw = chainsaw) and 鐵鏟 (metal spade) is also fine.

I believe the reason disyllabic words are more commonly used is simply because speaking in monosyllabic words may not convey the meaning well enough even with tones, so people tries to collocate characters together for making conversations easier. Despite all this, using monosyllabic words aren't "wrong". They are just rarely used and may make a sentence seem weird if used inappropriately.


As there are too many homophones in Chinese characters, a monosyllabic word is easily ambiguous in speech, which is the reason why we prefer using disyllabic words, via adding a meaningless prefix (e.g. 老) or a meaningless suffix (e.g. 子) on the root word.

鼠 → 老鼠

虎 → 老虎

猴 → 猴子

锯 → 锯子

铲 → 铲子

Which meaningless prefix/suffix should I add?

There is no rule at all, only by convention. Why is it 老鼠 instead of 鼠子? Because native Mandarin speakers feel that 老鼠 sounds good but 鼠子 sounds bad. Why does it sound good/bad? Only by convention, no other reason, just like irregular verbs in English.


If the question is, is there any counterexample, then, of course, there are. Just to name a few:

  • Organs of plants: 根 茎 叶 花 果 种子, but only 叶子 果子 种子, 花 despite being easily observable is missing
  • Animals in Chinese zodiac: 鼠牛虎兔龙蛇马羊猴鸡狗猪, only 兔子 猴子 (and note that 老 is often prepended: 老鼠 老虎), and 鸡子 狗子 in some dialects
  • Stationery: 书 纸 笔, but 本子
  • Weapons: 枪 剑 弓 箭 弩, only 刀(子) 棍子 棒子 (note: there are 枪子(儿) but with a very different meaning, it means bullet)
  • Other man-made objects: 秤 船 床 门 窗

Its not a firm and fast rule, but from what Ive seen its generally used to 'balance' a word. For example, 一个椅 technically is the same as 一个椅子 but saying yi ge yi feels a bit clunky and sounds like there should be more afterwards.


Yes, there's no rule at all. Just memorize them when you countered it. 铲子 is a correct and usual expression but 锯子 is seldom used. And if you learn a little further into the Ancient Chinese (古文), you'll know that in ancient times single characters are used instead of syllables. Mandrin was made to let people communicate easier so that everyone (especially those who didn't go to school, and the women don't even know characters) can understand the words and sentences. Don't ask me why because I'm a native speaker:P.

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.